The graduation gap

Our view: Boosting graduation rates at Maryland's historically black colleges and universities requires a data-driven approach

10:12 AM PDT, September 24, 2012


The U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $12.2 million in grants to Maryland's four historically black colleges and universities last week, with much of the money earmarked for programs aimed at boosting the proportion of entering freshmen who go on to graduate. Closing the gap between retention and graduation rates at the state's HCBUs and its traditionally white institutions has long been a goal of educators who realize the importance of making higher education more widely accessible. But to succeed in producing more graduates, schools are going to have to become a lot more pro-active in monitoring their students' progress, and they need to get a better handle on why so many of them leave before earning a diploma.

The federal money comes from a provision in Title III of the 1965 Higher Education Act designed to help HBCUs make up for the neglect they suffered from state legislatures during segregation. In the decades since the law was passed, Maryland's four HBCUs — Morgan State University, Bowie State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — have received significant assistance that allowed them to create new course offerings, graduate degree programs and upgrades to their physical plants.

But while these improvements in many cases have been consequential, other changes have confronted the schools with new challenges. Today, more than half of Maryland's 50,000 African-American college students attend traditionally white state public colleges and universities. Desegregation allowed thousands of students to take advantage of new opportunities, but it has also reduced the number of highly qualified applicants for whom the state's HBCUs were once the only alternative.

Because so many of those students now go elsewhere, the HBCUs' mission has changed. Instead of educating the elite among African-American students, their applicants increasingly are drawn from a pool of more economically disadvantaged young people who may also be less well-prepared academically. Many are the first members of their families to attend college, and because many come from school systems without strong college preparatory programs, they often need remedial instruction. Most also have to work while in school to cover expenses.

The HBCUs have responded with intensive remedial classes in reading and math as well as mentoring, counseling and other services to bring students up to speed. Coppin State University, for example, has a summer "bridge" program to help incoming freshmen make the transition to college-level courses as well as year-round initiatives to help students stay on track.

But in addition to such programs, the schools are going to have to take a much more systematic, data-driven approach to keeping students until they graduate. Educators need empirical evidence of which retention strategies work best, and they need to establish baselines for remedial instruction tailored to the ability of each student.

Above all, they need a granular understanding of why students drop out before graduating. Is it because of financial pressures? A family problem? Because the student was overwhelmed academically or couldn't fit in socially? These are the kinds of questions educators need to be asking but generally aren't. As a result, the first time educators realize a student is at risk is often after they've disappeared, and by then it's usually too late.

If educators had a better handle on the kinds of problems that cause students to leave, they could craft better policies to keep them. It's essential knowledge for schools that want to direct their resources wisely. Retention and graduation rates aren't the only useful metrics for judging school effectiveness, but clearly the tremendous effort invested in recruiting applicants and preparing them for college is wasted if they don't stick around long enough to earn a degree.

Last week's awards to Morgan, Coppin, Bowie State and UMES were based in part on a formula that attempts to take into account each school's graduation and retention rates. That suggests the federal government at least believes they are moving in the right direction. But the schools could progress even faster if they took a more rigorously systematic approach to the question of why students drop out. Coupled with a commitment by faculty and staff to take a much more hands-on attitude toward every student they encounter, it could ensure that all students have an opportunity to succeed.